Golf Ireland’s Independent Golfer Scheme – What is it and what does it mean?

Mark McGowan
Mark McGowan

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It’s been repeated to the point of exhaustion, but following its post-COVID boom, golf in Ireland has never been more popular.

Approximately 223,000 currently hold some degree of playing membership while research suggests that there are more than 300,000 more who play a full-length golf course at least once a year and how to transform a sizable portion of that 300,000 from casual and occasional golfers into regular players is the challenge.

 At Golf Ireland’s recent AGM, plans were laid out to launch an Independent Golfer scheme that would enable golfers who are non-club members to join what is effectively a virtual club and to obtain an official handicap, allowing them the opportunity to compete in Open competitions and any other event where an official handicap is required.

Representatives from the 377 Golf Ireland affiliated clubs nationwide were informed of the scheme’s imminent arrival during a webinar in late April, which prompted a variety of criticism of the scheme, most notably that of Ballyliffin General Manager John Farren who sent an open email in response, questioning many different aspects of the scheme and with widespread trepidation as to the potential consequences for Irish clubs as a whole.

But Golf Ireland feel that the criticism is undue and that both clubs and the game overall will benefit from the introduction of the scheme and that the results of similar schemes elsewhere is proof of that.

So, what exactly is the ‘Independent Golfer’ scheme and where is it currently being implemented?  

As mentioned, the Independent Golfer scheme will encourage golfers who don’t have a golf club membership to subscribe and receive an official handicap as part of that subscription, and the Golf Ireland plan is to launch the scheme in Ireland by the end of 2024.

Though the Golf Ireland Independent Golfer scheme has yet to be given an official name and the cost of the subscription has also not yet been decided, similar schemes are in operation in other countries, such as the £46 annually ‘iGolf’ in England, the £50 ‘OpenPlay’ in Scotland, Wales’ £55 ‘Flexi Club’ and the $120NZD (€66) ‘FlexiClub’ in New Zealand, and independent golfers will be required to comply with the R&A/USGA Rules of Handicapping and the Rules of Golf in just the same way as all other golfers.

“In Golf Ireland’s strategic plan, we committed to researching independent strategic schemes in other countries and assessing their suitability for Ireland,” said Jane Joyce, Golf Ireland Board Member & Chair of the independent golfer working group.

“The Independent Golfer scheme is part of a wider range of initiatives that are in place to continue to grow the game of golf in Ireland and make it more accessible. Initiatives such as Get Into Golf, Golf Sixes and Golf Ireland’s recently announced Major Events Legacy program are all designed to bring more people into golf. The Independent Golfer scheme is another example of an initiative that is working in other countries, supported and encouraged by the R&A.”

So what is to stop a club member giving up their membership in favour of the cheaper Independent Golfer subscription?

This was one of the primary points of contention in Farren’s early criticism and it is an understandable one, particularly for the smaller clubs that don’t attract big green fee revenue and have to rely almost entirely on membership dues for survival.

In many ways, Irish golfers, and Irish golf membership as a whole, can be compared to an archery target, with each concentric ring representing a different cohort. The bullseye are the hardcore members, the ones that are intrinsically tied to a club and would continue to pay their membership dues if they doubled overnight – they might grumble, but the thought of either moving club or relinquishing their membership would never enter their minds.

But as we move out the centre target, loyalty wanes. The two outermost rings represent the most casual of members on the inside and the golfer who has no membership at all on the edge of the target. The question is, with Independent Golf now an option, would more golfers from the outside ring take a step inwards, or would the reverse be true, and more golfers give up their existing memberships and opt for an Independent Golf membership instead?

To counteract this, Golf Ireland plan to include a ‘stand-down’ component which will prohibit existing club members from taking up an Independent Golf membership for a period of 12 months. For reference, New Zealand also requires golfers must wait one full year following their last traditional golf club membership expiring and being eligible to join FlexiClub.

Having an actual golf club membership also has additional benefits, including free access to tee-times, club competitions, inter-club team events, junior programmes and many social benefits.

Golf Ireland claim that the “ambition of a scheme like this is to ultimately grow club membership,” and that there is evidence to suggest that the “experience in other countries with similar schemes is that more players move from the independent golfer schemes to join clubs, than move the other way.”

“In England 14% of those who subscribed in year one went on to become golf club members in year two.  In older, more established schemes like New Zealand close to 40% of independent scheme subscribers have gone on to become club members.”

Information remains vague, however, so what percentage of the 14% in England that progressed to take up traditional membership had previously been members or how many left club memberships in favour of iGolf is not known.

So, are there any additional benefits for golf clubs?

Along with the growth in membership figures that is being suggested off the back of Independent Golfer subscriptions, an increase in golfers across the board should be reflected in an increase in traffic across the nation’s courses and as these Independent Golfers will be paying green fees, an increase in green fee revenue and competition revenue, in addition to increased traffic at the various clubs’ bars, restaurants, and pro shops.

An increase in golfers would also see knock on benefits to independent retailers, driving ranges, instructors and a variety of other businesses and ventures that depend on a thriving golf market for much, if not all of their business.

Has this not been tried before?

Yes, a version of this was tried by an independent company back in 2021 under the name FlexyGolf, spearheaded by Clubs to Hire’s Tony Judge. The difference with FlexyGolf and Golf Ireland’s Independent Golfer scheme is that FlexyGolf was a private enterprise, originally being run in conjunction with Blacklion Golf Club in Cavan and Highfield Golf Club in Kildare.

Acting as a virtual third party, FlexyGolf were offering discounted memberships at either of the two clubs mentioned and those that signed up would become “flexible” members of one or the other, have their handicap administered through the club in question after playing the requisite three rounds and, like all members of a club, would then be free to play competition golf all over the country with their official WHS handicaps, and that the two initial pioneering clubs were going to receive a portion of each subscription fee, as were Golf Ireland who would receive the usual affiliation fee (currently €28) for each member who signed up.

Judge claims that there were several other clubs poised to join the scheme, but that Golf Ireland pressured both Blacklion and Highfield into abandoning their support and the 100-plus members who’d signed on in the early stages were refunded and the initiative abandoned.

In a statement at the time, Golf Ireland said: “We are aware that an organisation has recently launched advertising flexible golf membership and official WHS Handicap Indices. This venture is not recognised by, or affiliated to, Golf Ireland which is the WHS handicapping authority for the island of Ireland.

“Golf Ireland’s commitment remains to support our affiliated clubs through the pandemic and assist them in retaining and growing their membership.”

“ is not recognised by, or affiliated to, Golf Ireland which is the WHS handicapping authority for the island of Ireland,” a Golf Ireland spokesperson further said. “The management of these handicaps by the affiliated clubs involved is being investigated.

“Our understanding is that FlexyGolf members will have handicaps from these clubs but these clubs do have a responsibility to review and stand over the integrity of their members’ handicaps under the Rules of Handicapping, this cannot be done by a third party organisation as seems to be the case.”

Judge refutes any suggestion that FlexyGolf were going to have any input into the administration of the handicaps.

“The handicaps were going to be administered and managed by the golf clubs, not by us,” he said, “because we didn’t have any right to do it. So, it was effectively all above board. All we were doing was becoming a facilitator for golfers. We were pairing what I would call ‘lost golfers’ into the system and then maybe they would migrate back into the system again and we made it very clear to Golf Ireland that that’s what we were doing.”

Judge thinks there is a certain hypocrisy about Golf Ireland introducing what he terms “the exact same thing” and thinks that the motivation behind seeing FlexyGolf shut down is that “Golf Ireland are the complete beneficiary as opposed to the golf clubs.”

Golf Ireland’s response was that any surplus revenue generated from the Independent Golfer scheme would be reinvested into growing the game.

“Our focus is on enabling more access to the game and creating pathways to grow membership, it is not centred around growing revenues,” they responded. “If there are surplus revenues from this scheme, they will be reinvested into growing the game of golf in Ireland at grass roots level.  This is a consistent approach across all other countries who have started these schemes.”

So, who will administer the handicaps under the new Independent Golfer scheme?

Golf Ireland will. Again, as previously mentioned, Independent Golfers will be required to comply with the R&A/USGA Rules of Handicapping and the Rules of Golf in just the same way as all other golfers.

Additionally, there will be a Handicap Committee responsible for Independent Golfers and they will carry out handicap reviews in accordance with the Rules of Handicapping.

“As Golf Ireland is the sole operator of the WHS in Ireland it makes sense for the integrity of the handicap system here that the governing body also administers the handicap scheme for independent golfers,” they added.

Are people worried that it will be too easy for Independent Golfers to manipulate their handicaps?

This is very much the elephant in the room, but as long as there have been handicaps, there have been people willing to manipulate those handicaps. In my opinion they are a minority, but still a sizeable enough minority that members in clubs up and down the country can all pinpoint certain individuals that they think are guilty of manipulation.

The World Handicap System when introduced was designed to bring uniformity across the board, taking slope (course difficulty) into account so that a handicap administered at a club with an extremely tough course is directly comparable to a handicap administered at a club with a so-called easier course and with eight scores to count from your most recent 20, to give a fair reflection of a player’s ability at a given time.

Does it make it easier to manipulate? Yes, it unquestionably does, but for the vast majority of golfers, each and every time they go out, they are trying to shoot the best score possible.

And sometimes it works in a club’s favour to turn a blind eye to what others would see as manipulation as it can benefit the club when it comes to interclub competition, so you can’t have your cake and eat it.

But returning to the wider point, yes, this was one of the primary talking points when the Independent Golfer scheme was announced. Manipulation is possible, but whether or not it happens at a scale greater than it’s currently happening at clubs around the country cannot be foreseen.

Golf Ireland maintain that the WHS is continually being evaluated and assessed, but until such time as it is deemed not fit for purpose, it will continue to be used across all clubs.

What other concerns were raised?

Among the other issues Farren’s initial email raised were that international visitors could potentially avail of discounted green fees reserved for the domestic market should they join the Independent Golfer scheme, but Golf Ireland have confirmed that the scheme is available to residents of the island only.

An additional concern was that there was no consultation with golf clubs prior to the scheme being announced, but prior to the official roll out, Golf Ireland have pledged that “there will be regular communications with clubs and stakeholders,” which began at Golf Ireland’s AGM back in March, followed by the initial webinar and that the working group will comprise members of the regional executive, board members and Golf Ireland staff.

Are there any additional testimonials from non-governing body-operated schemes?

Yes, following the publication of an online article, we were contacted by John O’Brien, an Irish ex-pat living in Spain who has been running a virtual golf club on the Costa Blanca for the past 12 years.

Now boasting over 250 members, this club without a course have grown to be one of the largest member golf clubs in the region. By registering with the Spanish Golf Federation and forming a four-person management committee, The Celts Club de Golf are able to run competitions for their members at any of the golf courses in the region and all scores are recorded on an app and handicap adjustments are automatically handled at Spanish Golf Federation HQ in Madrid.

“I think it’s guaranteed to happen,” O’Brien said when asked about the likelihood of Independent Golfer attracting new players to the game. “There are so many people playing down here that never would’ve started if we hadn’t started our golf club. We now get an €8,000 annual grant from the Spanish Golf Federation to help encourage new players to take up the sport.”

Who are likely to be the big losers with Independent Golfer?

Golf clubs that offer distance memberships at cut-rate prices are the most likely to see a big drop in membership, as in many instances, the members are merely joining for the handicap alone and have no links to the club beyond the fee being paid and the handicap administered.

Whether or not this practice should be encouraged is up for debate, but since Open competitions are often available at considerably less cost than a standard green fee at the same course, and there is always the possibility of a prize if things go your way, it makes sense that you pay your nominal fee and spend your year as a golfing nomad.

For these players, the Independent Golfer scheme is ideal. For the clubs in question though, the scheme could prove fatal.

But as somebody who maintained a distance membership at my home club whilst living in Dublin and playing 95 percent of my golf on the Open competition circuit, I’d hate to see Open competitions become a thing of the past should golf clubs revolt against the Independent Golfer scheme.

One thing is certain, however. The jury is out, and it’s going to take a lot of convincing to get many clubs on board.

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5 responses to “Golf Ireland’s Independent Golfer Scheme – What is it and what does it mean?”

  1. Paul McKenna avatar
    Paul McKenna

    Given the majority of clubs no longer offer discounts to GUI members. Surely more needs to be done to protect club golfers given the current climate the green fees to play some of our top courses. These courses are projecting an image that they no longer want club golfers to play as maybe we don’t spend the money on their merchandise.

  2. Henry Richards avatar
    Henry Richards

    As a golfer who enjoys playing different courses this is a great idea. I spend at least £1,500 a year on green fees playing with 3 societies and casually with friends. I wouldn’t want to give this up and just play mainly at a club, which I would feel obliged to do if I had to pay the fee. I keep a record of my scores which gives me my h’cap.
    My wife is a club member and enjoys it, so I see both sides. It would also be nice to join her at opens.

  3. John avatar

    Golf Ireland has not engaged with the key stakeholders, the golf clubs of Ireland, instead they have dictated to the clubs what they are doing. The webinars that they held with the clubs did not allow for any critical questions to be asked. Golf Ireland seem to have forgotten on this occasion that they are funded by existing golf club members through the affiliation fee that all club members must pay, otherwise they would have engaged with the clubs before dictating the introduction of this new scheme.
    There are two key concerns for golf clubs, the first is the possible loss of members and the second is the possibility of these ‘Independent Golfers’ entering open competitions with dodgy handicaps.
    If golf clubs feel strongly enough about this issue then there is the option to call a meeting of the clubs who do not agree with this scheme with a view to withholding the affiliation fees. Another option is to no longer hold ‘Open Competitions’ but instead hold something like ‘Golf Club Members Reciprocal Competitions’, so you have to be a member of a club to enter.

  4. John P avatar
    John P

    I have been golfing since I was 10 years old, however my work and family life do not allow me to play more than a handful of times a year. This has been the case for some time. The rare times I play is off the last official handicap I had (which is way off what I should be playing off based on my scoring). To join a club just to maintain a handicap is not a value for money option even with cheap distance membership.

    What I am missing is a handicap system which allows me to compete fairly with anyone I play with, as for me every outing with a playing partner could be competitive.

    I know many others like me, most young (ish), likely with young families. From the outside it seems that golf clubs need to boost club membership numbers substantially, at least based on the age profile of club members that I encounter.

    In my humble opinion this independent golfer scheme is the answer, provided: #1 it is given the chance, #2 the year wait period for existing members to join is enforced, #3 there is transparency from Golf Ireland in both the full golf club membership joining and leaving trends data so that all stakeholders can take stock at future intervals, #4 the redistribution of increased revenue to Golf Ireland is reported transparently to golf club affiliates, and most importantly #5 that there is an increased focus and dedication to improving handicap maintenance using course slope scores. This last point is critical for open competitions regardless of whether this new independent golfer scheme takes off or not.

    1. Michael avatar

      It is of note that the stand down period in England was 1 year when this was introduced and it is now 30 days.

      The 300,000 golfers ( it was initially 350,000 !) who are not club members who regularly play is just not credible. A nice round figure. It’s source is “research” without identifying who did the research and how.

      Golf Ireland’s approach to introducing this is suspiciously non transparent …. many of the key items are just not being communicated
      and there has been no opportunity to debate.

      Maybe if the stand down was 3 years with a guarantee that it would not be reduced like in England for say 5 years and then only if agreed at AGM
      clubs might be more relaxed.

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